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OUTLAW JOSEY WALES: Eastwood the Man

Matthew Dillon reminds us that, as Orson Welles declared, if it had been directed by anyone else, The Outlaw Josey Wales would have been feted as a masterpiece - or was it ahead of its time?

In the latter years of his career, Clint Eastwood has received considerable acclaim for his work. The revisionist western Unforgiven earned Oscars in four categories, including Best Picture and Director, and the French acknowledged Eastwood's rich contribution to film with presentation of the Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters (Commandeur de L'Ordre Arts et des Lettres), the highest French cultural decoration.

"avoided the wider cultural analysis"

As an actor Eastwood has turned roles such as Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry into signposts in the Zeitgeist, and parts in numerous spaghetti westerns established an archetype in the genre, that of The Man With No Name (and after Eastwood reportedly tore pages from the script, The Man With No Dialogue).

Yet a film such as The Outlaw Josey Wales, made in 1976 and one of the earlier entries in the Eastwood directorial canon (he took over after shooting had begun), somehow avoided the wider cultural analysis afforded far shallower and less resonant westerns such as The Wild Bunch or Rio Bravo and the adulation of others such as Shane and High Noon.

At the same time, while it is well known among western aficionados and Eastwood acolytes, it is a film conspicuous by its absence from the numerous end of century critics' lists. Consider that no less a figure than Orson Welles declared that if it had been directed by anyone else, The Outlaw Josey Wales would have been feted as a masterpiece. For some reason, however, it's a film that just never seems to have received its due.

Perhaps it's because, though the film depicts a government authority that lies to and betrays its constituents, and exhibits an idiosyncratic structure and script, it's a movie not thought of as typical of its time. The Outlaw Josey Wales doesn't readily offer a reading as one of the quintessential 70s movies made in the wake of Watergate or the Vietnam war in the same way that, say, The Deerhunter or Taxi Driver do.

"a quest for revenge"

All of which is not to say that The Outlaw Josey Wales is a standard entry in the western genre. Essentially it is the story of a man, who robbed of his family and peaceful life, sets out on a quest for revenge, only to realise ultimately, as he tells one of his victims, "dying ain't much of a living."

The film opens near the start of the internecine American civil War. A farmer, Josey, goes about his daily toil of ploughing a field, his young son learning by his side while in the distance we hear a voice, his wife's, calling him to supper. Marauding Union soldiers ride into this idyllic tableau, and it quickly becomes apparent that this band, characterised by red leggings, mean the family ill will.

The house aflame, family distraught, Josey resists the soldiers, but is struck down. He recovers only to find his family is dead, the dwelling burnt down and his former tranquil life over. From the embers of his house Josey takes up his pistol, thus beginning his quest for revenge. In so many of Clint Eastwood's films little is known about the lead characters. In fact in several, Pale Rider and High Plains Drifter come to mind, we learn not much more about the protagonists other than their adroitness with weapons, a fondness for using few words and a determination to set things right. They are avenging angels without pasts.

"a history that becomes embellished by time"

Josey Wales, though, like Unforgiven's William Munny, has a history that becomes embellished by time. In the closing hours of the war, Fletcher (a stentorian John Vernon), the leader of the group Josey has joined after the destruction of his former existence, convinces the posse of confederates of the sense in surrendering to the union.

Wales resists, reckoning it better not to acquiesce to the murderers of his family, and his decision is a sound one. Fletcher, like his men, has been lied to - and a trap set. All are gunned down, save for Jamie (Sam Bottoms) who escapes with Josey, whose quest now becomes one of escape as Fletcher and redleg Terrill are dispatched to capture them. Before long though, the lone traveller is joined by a mess of unlikely characters.

Though outwardly a very simple film, like Unforgiven, The Outlaw Josey Wales is serviced by an interestingly lyrical script which pays as much attention to characters' words as deeds. It also features a sparkling cast of minor players that include a sycophantic barge driver, a no-nonsense pilgrim crone and her strange granddaughter (Sondra Locke, who is not as annoying as she could be) and an elixir-shilling carpetbagger who can't keep his suit resplendent for very long - to name a few. A moody score earned the film its only Oscar nomination.

Like many entries in the genre, The Outlaw Josey Wales uses its setting as an excuse for some superb shots of sweeping vistas and roan stallions a-whinnying.

At the same time it resists falling into the simplistic dime-novel narrative conventions, of say Wyatt Earp or The Quick and the Dead. It also manages to portray native Americans in a sympathetic and realistic manner, unlike, most notably, The Searchers.

"The price for timelessness"

And unlike Dances With Wolves, a similarly big canvas dramatic western, or even much later movies such as Tombstone or Dead Man, the characters employ humour that belies their often bleak existence. Given the awards earned by Unforgiven, and in the wake of it, to Eastwood himself - he even chaired the jury at Cannes one year - the only thing that might have prohibited The Outlaw Josey Wales from winning continuing adulation from a critical audience was timing. The film was simply made too early. It could be said the price for its timelessness is that it often continues to be overlooked.

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